Deb Roach is the Ultimate Pole Champion Winner (Disabled Division) in the 2012 International Pole Championship held in Hong Kong. Having always been drawn to doing the hard thing, as an adult she learned to challenge her own assumptions and in 2006 began her international pole dancing career. She believes some things might seem difficult, but nothing is impossible.
The Catalyst Dance Masterclass Series 2013 was an artistic awakening for Deb. As she ventured into relatively unchartered territory during her performance career, working with choreographers Sue Healey, Dean Walsh and Creative Director of Second Skin, Philip Channells, she now confidently adds dance to her many creative talents.
Can you tell me about the early years growing up in your home town. Where was that and did you do all the ‘normal’ stuff other families did?
There wasn’t much that was normal about my childhood. I grew up in Carlingford. My sister is 12 years older than me, my brother 15 years older than me. My parents had separated long before my birth – a good 5 years – as my dad had a second family. I wasn’t made aware that he didn’t actually live in my family home until I was in the 6th grade. I was 11 when I learned that I have half siblings. Some older, some younger.
He was also an abusive alcoholic. A lot of the time we were walking on eggshells. But he was often my protective dad and I was daddy’s little girl and doted on him. As a small girl I remember his tickle attacks and endless raspberries. Mum was my care giver and did everything in her power to make sure I never even noticed I was disabled. She did a great job of it! Until I started day care and the other kids rather quickly brought it to my attention…
So I developed a wild imagination. I played in my barbie world, my pony world and the book world. I wrote incredible stories. I TOLD incredible stories and swore blind they were true. So yeah, normal kid stuff was in there too hahaha.
My family wasn’t religious or close-knit… So I found a family that was both! I tagged onto a family down the street and went to Girls Brigade and Sunday School with their daughters – and generally hung around like a bad smell!
Were you close to your parents as a child?
As teenagers, my siblings were pretty involved in their own stuff. Sometimes I felt like my big sister was another parent because she was so hard on me and took such an active role in my upbringing. Mum was my world and with Dad so often away, I wanted much more of her attention than she could afford me. She was holding a job and raising three children completely alone – but in her efforts to give me the best possible chances in life I very rarely heard the word no. That has helped me as an adult – I rarely take no for an answer!!!
You took dancing lessons at a very early age, but you were discouraged from continuing in that path. Why was that?
I felt discouraged by ANYTHING physical. To start with, I had extremely bad asthma, allergies and eczema. I felt like the world was trying to kill me. I would try to run and fall down, my airways closing. My hand eye coordination was terrible – ball sports ended in black eyes and bruised cheeks (not to mention my deflated ego). Next, I was constantly teased and tormented – all the PEOPLE seemed out to get me, too! The worst was school sports days. I went to school back when the teachers still let kids choose their teams, one member at a time. You could put money on me ALWAYS being the last person standing, and the group who had to take me groaning when it happened. Made me feel TERRIBLE. I had no friends and no confidence. Dancing without confidence is a bit like flying with broken wings. And that’s exactly what I was told I was – a broken line. Aesthetically displeasing…
In the comfort of my own lounge room, I was a dancer – with video hits on the TV. In dance class I was a mess, struggling to keep up and wear someone elses choreography. The movement of the people comfortable being vulnerable, happy being seen.
I wanted to be one of them… but I felt that I failed. The messages I got were constantly that I was “not good enough”.
When did you know you wanted to perform? Was there a defining moment?
In my late teens I got involved in the gothic nightclub scene. It was the first time I made real friends. I stopped trying to fit in. I took risks. I dyed my hair green. I pierced my face. It didn’t matter that I had one arm – I could give you a million reasons to think I was different. My black clothes and grey complexion almost served as a warning! But in the clubs – people liked me. I made LOTS of friends. People thought I was pretty. Some of them even said I was beautiful. WHAT?! YEEHA! I got into alternative modelling and DJing. I would dance in and out of the booth. I got paid to stage dance. Everything had changed. I could be whoever I wanted and people didn’t mind anymore. I could be seen. It was safe! I could move – with confidence AND freedom. I was finally receiving positive attention and I liked it.
This really is the story of the ugly duckling, huh?
Can you tell me the difference between dancing on a pole and dancing on the tarkett?
There’s a whole stage – plenty of tarkett and just a couple of poles! Floor work and actual dance are a huge part of pole performance. A dancer can incorporate acrobatics. A routine can be musical and gymnastic all at once… For me, pole dance is an extension of dance. It IS dance, and it is theatre – but it is still more. Both require great flexibility, and dance needs strength, but pole is really a challenging, strength-based activity. To then mask the effort in grace and beauty is my favourite illusion of them all. I love the trick element. Mastering daredevil moves takes longer than learning steps and I have found the patience for it. On stage with a couple of poles I also have a friend and a partner. Someone to dance with, or someone to dance FOR. Someone to hold or someone to support me. The tool to turn my world upside down or send me into a spin. Wherever the music tells me I need to go, the pole can take me there… I spent so many years feeling alone already.
You speak French fluently and have traveled the world performing, teaching and judging – what’s life like on the road? Do you ever get tired of it?
I’m only just getting started! I’ve recently adopted the gypsy life, got rid of everything I owned, unfortunately including my precious four legged fur babies. I’m so grateful that they both went to incredible homes. I now have 4 plastic tubs and 3 suitcases to my name. I’m at an age where there is a bit of a pull towards nesting – I notice that I want to stop and look in homewares stores, but I don’t ever both going in. What’s the point? I have no fixed address!! It’s my choice though, and I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way. This is freedom. The process of getting rid of everything was cleansing and liberating. My life has never felt so organised and clean! I’m getting good at my system of checks. The toothbrush and toothpaste I left in a cup in Korea in late September are the only omissions in my exit strategy for a long, long time. Clearing out of a room takes 20 minutes, flat. I can now pack within 40 minutes for a trip of any nature or duration and I’m on a first name basis with a couple of security guards at Sydney Airport hahaha.
There are downsides to traveling alone with one arm. I can only carry a certain amount of luggage in a certain type of bag and with the numerous checks and stages there’s a lot of faffing about. It takes me longer to do things and I get a bit frustrated with trying to juggle too much stuff. Once I’m at my destination though, it’s happy days. I love meeting new people and sharing stories and experiences. My home isn’t a place anymore. Its my connection to the beautiful souls I meet along my path.
Is there a particular experience in your career that you will never forget?
There are many unforgettable experiences in my dancing career. Nowadays, they happen frequently. Ever since the International Pole Championships in March last year. That was mind blowing. Having my then pole dancing idol, Jenyne Butterfly, share her grip aid with me when I was in trouble and slipping off the pole was like being Cinderella being crowned by her fairy godmother. Amazing. Then to win a title amidst the best pole dancers in the world? I was overcome with gratitude and awe. It happens more and more frequently now!
The making of Second Skin for the Catalyst Dance Mastserclass Series was quite a new experience for you. Can you tell me more about that?
Firstly, I normally work my own routines. I wear my ideas. I slip into my own choreography and I just move my way. Solo. I warm up a certain way, I train a certain way and I cool down a certain way. I really struggled with dance classes as a child. I couldn’t move like the teacher nor the other students and saw this as a fault. I was discouraged and it impacted my self esteem. A performing artist who doesn’t want to be seen because they feel flawed and unwatchable is quite the paradox to break down.
Exploring my own movement in night clubs and becoming a stage dancer improved my self confidence. Eventually, through repetition and practice as an adult at Sydney Dance Company, participating in a class environment became easier and I cleaned up my lines and technique a bit. They still need a lot of work! Secondly, I didn’t have any previous exposure to integrated dance or an accessible artist’s world. This was my first time working physically and creatively as a participant in a group of other disabled performers. I was pretty intimidated at first and had no idea what I was in for! But I was there to learn, to try – to give it my all and to grow. It was one of the best decisions I ever made to step so far outside of my comfort zone.
Did you relate to any of the choreographer’s creative process more than the other and why? How did they work differently?
Each choreographer’s process was entirely different and I learned so much from all three! After encouraging us to explore our own movement and connection with others through our warm ups – as well as gathering an understanding of our different capacities – Sue introduced her ideas around “second skin”. She had numerous concepts and pieces she encouraged us to try, capturing some on film, allowing us to work with each other, with fabric, using light and projection and incorporating all of that with the dancers in an exploration of her ideas.
Dean had a story and a score that he gave to use to embody and redefine as we needed. He taught us so much about his own passions and processes as well as contemporary dance as an art form. There was a lot of breath work in Dean’s score and that started to unlock some very deep emotions in me, that were difficult to handle when they surfaced because of the limited time and space we had to deal with them in such intensive sessions. I’m so glad it happened though – because the therapeutic benefit is undeniable.
I got the absolute most, however, out of working with you, Philip. You gave us all homework, to go away and look at ourselves. To become more aligned with our identities and to share those formative pieces of key information with the audience. You helped us to create a work in which we offered ourselves to the crowd as a gift, through our dance and our expression. It was the most beautiful present we had to give and it was just so warmly received. There was no way that we, as dancers, could have walked away without a greater and deeper sense of acceptance and wholeness of self. It was really beautiful. So thank you.
Looking into your crystal ball, what does the future have in store for you?
A continuation of the joyful exploration of just how much further than the perceived realms of possibility I can extend my physical body. I’m going to delve so much deeper into both dance and the circus arts – there’s a UK residency or training installation of the cards for sure. I’ll be defending my title as international pole dance champion in Singapore on November 30th and heading straight to Europe for yet another workshop tour. There’s lots of travel in my future, performing on stages the world over and sharing pole dance, yoga and circus skills with an amazing world of performing artists along the way. I’m really excited to start my Circus Residency in the UK in April next year.
What advice would you give other young women with disability interested to pursue a career in the performing arts?
This applies to women AND men: FULL THROTTLE. If this is your heart and your soul, your ultimate passion, you must pursue it completely and at any cost.
It takes a lot of resilience and resourcefulness to overcome the myriad obstacles you’ll encounter along the way – this is a tough gig – but it’s worth it. Dig deep, go hard, follow your dreams and let nothing stand in your way. That said, you need to be VERY flexible (about stuff, not physically) and very, very patient. The road to a successful career in the arts is a very long and slow one. That’s the first test – of your ability to endure.
As people with disabilities, we have to accommodate the challenges that brings with it. That takes great patience. Often the biggest struggles I face is trying to manage how my body reacts to large volumes of intense work in the time frames I have available. So a lot of my preparation is mental because the physical side needs to be quality, not quantity. As people living with disability, we’re naturally gifted problem solvers and lateral thinkers. Adversity can be our best friend if we put those skills to good use and do lots of planning. Having great supporters and putting them to good use never hurts, either!
Connect with your community of disabled performing artists. They are WONDERFUL people.
Deb Roach won her first amateur pole dancing title in 2009. She had first seen pole dancing in a nightclub in 2006, a doubles routine performed by Susie Q and Missy. They became her first two teachers. Deb went on to train with a variety of Sydney’s best pole dancers and instructors from every style, including Jamilla Deville, Kim Miller, Luxe L’Etoile, Bailey Hart, Shimmy and Chilli Rox.
Since winning at the International Pole Championships in 2012, she has travelled the world constantly; performing, teaching workshops and training alongside incredible dancers she is lucky to call friends – like Bendy Kate (UK), or other home-grown favourites like Lisa D, Travis Scott, and Kristy Sellars. Not bad, really, considering this now happy and vibrant woman was born without most of her left arm. Deb also suffered anxiety and depression from childhood up until her early twenties. Pole dance, dance, yoga, Pilates and running have changed her life forever.
When Deb is in Sydney, she works not only as a performer, but as a personal trainer, yoga teacher and Pilates instructor. It was Deb’s own awareness of the importance of health and fitness that transformed into the joy of mastering not only new pole moves, but also new ways of inspiring people to push beyond their perceived limitations.
Deb is on the circuit as an inspirational speaker and is active in the disability sector. She is a graduate of the Leaders for Tomorrow Disability leadership. Her mission is to transform the way disabled Australians access health and fitness resources through her Accessible Wellness project. She is also the President of Sydney’s Amputee Association. Sought-after by clients and venues alike as a result of her ability to mesmerise audiences and to motivate others to achieve their utmost, Deb espouses the benefits of physical activity and the power of the mind.
Photo: Gisella Vollmer